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Puffing Along

F.D. Grave & Son of New Haven, Connecticut, is behind the Muniemaker cigar brand.
Mark Vaughan
From the Print Edition:
Fidel Castro, Summer 94

Dorothy Grave Hoyt is something of an oddity in an industry geared principally to masculine tastes. Young, attractive and female, she is completely at ease in the world of fine tobacco and elegant cigars.

"People are usually pretty surprised when they findout what I do," admits the 32-year-old Hoyt. "But there was never any question in my mind. I've known since I was a little girl that I'd end up running the family business."

"I guess you could say that tobacco is in Dorothy's blood," adds her father, Frederick Grave III. "She's always been interested in cigars. She knows as much about running a cigar business as anybody."

The business is F. D. Grave & Son, Inc., Connecticut's lone surviving cigar maker. The company, an icon of the nineteenth-century American entrepreneurial spirit that helped forge a great nation, has been in the Grave family for four generations--surviving two world wars, the Great Depression, countless business cycles, changing trends and an anticigar onslaught that has been building for decades.

"It might seem odd that Dorothy's in the business because she's a woman," admits Frederick Grave, who with his brother Richard went to work at the company in 1950, the year they both graduated from Yale University. The brothers took control of the business in 1962, shortly before their father, Frederick Grave Jr., died in 1963. "But when Dick and I first started out, our friends thought we were crazy, too. They said, 'What kind of future is there in cigars? All your customers are old men.' Well, I figured there would always be old men around. The cigar industry by nature is kind of doom and gloom, but it's been good to us."

Indeed it has. Sales of F. D. Grave & Son's cigars have held steady at the 7 million mark for more than a decade. Though this is down from the company's mid-1960s peak of about 10 million, it is still a respectable number in today's antismoking market. Such success, claims Fred Grave, lies in dedication to quality and simple perseverance.

"We've managed to do well year in and year out," he says. "None of us have gotten superrich, but we're all pretty comfortable. Let's face it, I'd much rather have been in the cigar business over the past 10 years than in banking or real estate. And the other thing is that, unlike computers and VCRs, there is no bright guy in Japan dreaming up a better cigar."

On a breezy morning in early November, the Graves gather at the company's headquarters in New Haven. Constructed in 1901 by Frederick Grave Sr., the State Street building was said at the time to be one of the most "substantial, modern, and up-to-date cigar factories of this or any other country," according to a local-newspaper article published in 1905. Today, the graceful, four-story structure is a relic among its more youthful neighbors, its Victorian details and gold-lettered sign fading with age.

Inside, the rococo-paneled walls are covered with framed, original-edition, limestone-etched lithograph cigar labels and other memorabilia. A cigar-store Indian guards the inner-office desk that was once used by Frederick Grave Sr. himself, and is now under the command of great-granddaughter Hoyt. The 24,000 square-foot building is eerily quiet, and only a faint aroma of cured tobacco lingers in the air. Cigar production was shifted to a Pennsylvania subcontractor in 1986, explains Fred Grave, who, at 67, is still trim and energetic. Dressed casually in a worn sweater and open-neck shirt, he leans back in a simple, hardwood office chair and chews thoughtfully on one of his favorite cigars, an unlighted, six-inch Muniemaker Palma 100 Oscura.

Dick Grave, 65, dressed as casually as his brother, has just returned from an early-morning, bird-hunting foray in the Con-necticut coastal wetlands, a weekly autumn tradition. He admits to being a very light smoker, only one or two a week, compared with his brother's three or more a day.

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